Gertrude Stein


Even more so than Williams,’ Stein’s work stands in opposition to “The Waste Land.” Eliot saw cultural decay and the degradation of history, and a general bankruptcy  of meaning, whereas Stein saw poignancy and excitement in the disorder of language. Stein also rejected the idea that reading poetry should be a difficult, scholarly experience. When asked how one should understand her work in a 1932 interview Stein responded:“But after all you must enjoy my writing, and if you enjoy it you understand it. If you do not enjoy it, why do you make a fuss about it? There is the real answer.”  Stein asks us to let go of our old reading habit, to reject the analysis and embrace the free and fluid beauty of the word itself.


T. S. Eliot  clung to the idea that reading poetry should be a difficult task. In his 1927 review of Stein he wrote:  “it is not improving, it is not amusing, it is not interesting, it is not good for one’s mind. But its rhythms have a peculiar hypnotic power not met with before. It has a kinship with the saxophone. If this is the future, then the future is [something] in which we ought not to be interested.”


Through slightly varied repetitions of words and phrases Stein examines the relationship between the meaning of words and how they are actually used. Stein’s 1924 poem “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso” is both a rejection and celebration of order.


On one hand, Stein overturns the traditional artistic norms that gave order to poetic history. This poem interrogates the definition of “resemblance.” In Stein’s portraits there is no one ordered resemblance, but a diverse jumble of reality, which captures the disordered, many sided, forever in motion presence. Despite the title, she subverts the idea that anything can ever really be complete, or at least complete according to traditional notions of finishedness. According to Stein, to forge a full image of a person or a object, one must look at it from a multiplicity of angles. This idea is carried over into the words used to describe the many facets of the thing. Not only does Stein examine the full nature of the thing, but also the full varied spectrum of meanings and usages of the words themselves. Stein’s style is intrinsically subversive in that it rejects traditional poetic forms and standard laws of grammar so completely, more completely than any other Modernist poet of the era.


On the other hand Stein organizes the disordered meaning of words by rearranging and repeating them so as to form slightly different meanings. Stein’s worlds are often stripped of reference but they are not stripped of history. History it seems, is intricately bound to individual words and language as a whole. Through her subversive cubist poetry, Stein joins the past and the presence together in the now.